For the past three years, Sarah Cox and her friends traveled to Las Vegas for the annual Route 91 country music festival.
Last Thursday, the group of six women — three from Thermopolis, one from Worland, one from California and one from Colorado — looked forward to a weekend of music and fun as they checked into their rooms on the ninth floor of the Mandalay Bay Hotel. That same evening, a man would check into the same hotel, a man who would eventually open fire on the concertgoers, killing 58 people and injuring more than 500.
The weekend progressed as usual and at 8 p.m. that Sunday, Cox said goodbye to her friends in a group hug before the last show of the weekend. She needed to get to Casper early Monday morning to see her daughter, Shayna, be sworn in as the Natrona County Sheriff’s Office newest deputy.
She considered staying for the last concert of the festival by country pop star Jason Aldean. She could find a later flight, perhaps, or one in the very early morning.
But she knew she needed to be at the sheriff’s office at 8 a.m. the next day and dutifully boarded her 9:53 p.m. flight to Denver, switching her phone to airplane mode.
For the next two hours, she chatted with her neighboring passengers, many of whom also wore festival wristbands, swapping stories about the weekend.
When they touched down in Denver, Cox switched her phone back on, expecting to see photos of the concert and her smiling friends. Instead, her phone began to buzz endlessly with texts and alerts.
A call came through.
A cacophony of screaming and crying came through her phone, interrupted by her friend trying to get her an urgent message: “I just want you to know I’m safe.”
Cox still didn’t know what had happened in Las Vegas that night. She didn’t know that 15 minutes after her plane took off a man opened fire on the crowd at the festival from the hotel she had been staying in. Soon, the phones of everyone around her on the plane started buzzing and ringing. Panic erupted as the passengers heard from family and friends who were still on the Vegas strip. They started to rush off the plane and into the airport.
Cox paused a moment and let the others exit the plane.
She reunited with her daughter and son, who had arrived at the Denver airport to drive their mom to Casper. On the ride home, Cox texted her friends, who were uninjured but terrified. One sent her a video she had recorded of Jason Aldean on stage as the shots begin, the sound of automatic fire constant behind the music.
She thought of all the children she had seen at the festival, including a pair of twins that watched some of the concerts from their parents’ shoulders and a baby with bright pink earmuffs strapped to her mother’s chest. Those children must have been there at the time of the shooting, she thought.
Above all, Cox contemplated the seemingly random twists of fate that kept her and the other women unharmed.
What if the ceremony had been later in the week and she had been at that concert? What if she had decided to stay? The group had been standing in the center of the crowd, about 10 rows from the stage. Because she left, the other women split up and moved to a spot nearer the exit.
“Standing where we were before, there’s no way they could’ve gotten out,” she said.
Cox and her children arrived in Casper about 5 a.m. Monday, just a few hours before Shayna was to be sworn in as the sheriff office’s newest deputies.
The family didn’t sleep. They arrived two minutes late to the swearing-in ceremony, but still took pictures and celebrated the moment — a joyous reprieve after a night of worry. Deputy Cox spent her first day on the job with the shooting and her mom’s friends in the back of her mind. She had known those women since she was a child.
Her mother didn’t sleep until the next day when she knew her friends were safe on their flights home.
Tuesday morning, Cox went to check on one of her friends in her Thermopolis home. She walked in the door and found that her friend was still asleep, peaceful in her bed.
Cox tiptoed up and kissed her lightly on the head. She sighed with relief.
“I didn’t feel good until I knew they were home,” Cox said.
“That’s half my wedding party,” she said. “They’re family.”